2015 NLCS: Chicago Cubs vs New York Mets

On July 28, 2015, the Chicago Cubs were 52-47. The New York Mets were 52-48. Both teams had allowed more runs than they had scored. Both were having nice seasons after years of bad. But neither team was in first place. The Mets were right behind a struggling Nationals team and the Cubs were way back behind surging Cardinals and Pirates teams.

The Cubs would go 45-18 from there on out (.714). The Mets would go 38-24 (.613) the rest of the way. The Cubs wouldn’t catch the Cardinals and have to play the Pirates in the Wild Card game (obviously they won). The Mets would catch and pass the Nats with ease. The Cubs beat the Cards in the NLDS while the Mets beat the Dodgers.

For both teams, I can’t really think of a single thing that went wrong all year until the Divisional series. The Nationals injuries and poor play allowed the Mets to hang around through the first four months of the season, and once they had the chance, they went for the jugular. Meanwhile, the Cubs didn’t have a significant injury other than some bumbs and bruises for Soler and a number of guys had career years. The Cardinals LOB% was about all that went wrong for the Cubs this year. The Cubs got revenge in the NLDS.

So what the hell happened? Are these teams closer to what they were the first 100 games of the year or what they’ve been the last 67 games? Let’s take a look.


You’d think, “oh the Cubs have a huge advantage on offense over the Mets”. But you’d be wrong. The Cubs are a three true outcome team, only they don’t hit as many home runs as you’d think. In fact, the Mets hit more home runs (177) than the Cubs (171) in 2015. 

The Cubs do walk a lot, 9.1% (2nd highest walk percentage in MLB) and they strike out a ton, just under 25% of the time (highest in baseball by far). Their .305 BABIP has saved them a bit since they only have hit .244 as a team, second lowest mark (and tied with the Mets) in the majors this year. The Cubs aren’t bad at getting on base, but they aren’t good either. And the wRC+ of 96 and wOBA of .313 are both below average. 

As you’d expect from a team that lead the Majors in strike outs, the Cubs swing and miss a lot. They were last in MLB in contact rate (74.8%) and ‘led’ the Majors in swinging strike percentage (11.8%). The concern for the Cubs is that there wasn’t a ton of power to back up such high whiff rates. The Astros, as a comparison, had a K-rate that was 1.47 standard deviations beyond the mean and hit the second most home runs in the majors; the Cubs’ K-rate, meanwhile, was 2.4 standard deviations above the average but were barely above the league average in the number of home runs. What saves them is that they walk a lot (and that slightly high BABIP). 

However, the Cubs line up was completely transformed when they called up Kyle Schwarber in the middle of July. He gave them a third big bat in the lineup, making life that much more difficult for opposing pitchers, and they’ve effectively played over .700 baseball since.   

2015 Offensive Z-Scores: Cubs and Mets

The Mets offense is not nearly as poor as one would be led to believe. They’re around average/below average in every offensive category. They don’t get on base as much as the Cubs, but that’s partly explained by a low BABIP (.287) and of course, a lower walk rate. However, the Mets actually had, ever so slightly, a higher slugging percentage as a team and bested the Cubs in wRC+.

Like the Cubs, the Mets lineup was transformed right around when they got hot by trading for Cespedes and calling up Michael Conforto. Conforto should start in left field, there really is no reason for Cuddyer to ever see the field other than as a pinch hitter. And for all the whining about the Mets bats in the first few months of the season, Wright, Granderson, Duda, Cespedes, d’Arnaud, and Conforto all had wRC+ above 130 this year. The Mets offense, while maybe not overly dynamic, is pretty good.

If anything, people are overrating the Cubs and underrating the Mets offenses. While the Cubs are better at getting on base, some of that was driven by BABIP luck. The only offensive area the Cubs clearly have an advantage is on the base paths. The Cubs are also an excellent base running team.


The understated and under-reported story about the 2015 Cubs has been their defense. The Cubs have been and excellent defensive team this year, and while they aren’t the Royals, a team UZR of 23.4 is one standard deviation above the mean. Bryant looks like he’ll be a good/solid third baseman for the next few years. Coghlan has been excellent in left and Montero has been good behind the plate. But much of the Cubs excellent defense has been driven by Addison Russell who is out with a hamstring injury. This is a big deal.

See the rest of the Cubs D hasn’t been that great: Castro has been fine at short/second and Fowler okay in center. But Soler has been bad in right. If Schwarber plays, it will be in replacement of Coghlan, and he is not a good fielder. And Russell’s replacement in the lineup is Javy Baez. We’re working with really small sample size here, but Baez hasn’t been very good at second or short in the majors. There is a huge step down in UZR from Russell to Baez. Something to watch.

There’s not a ton to say about the Mets D. There isn’t an excellent defender on the team, though Granderson is decent in right and Conforto looks solid in left. Cespedes isn’t a center fielder and their middle infield is slightly below average.

But what looked like the Cubs biggest advantage, defense, is now closer to a push with Russell out and Schwarber in left.

Starting Pitching

These are two excellent staffs. Man are they good.

The Cubs were second in the majors in Ks per 9, didn’t walk guys, and managed to keep the ball in the park. They did have some luck on their side, as a .285 BABIP would indicate, but the Cubs starters were pretty good at getting ground balls (where Russell would then scoop them up) and had the lowest FIP and xFIP in the majors. The story of the Cubs in the postseason has been their bats, but the reality is the Cubs had the best starting rotation in the Majors this year. They were led by pitching and defense.

The Cubs are going to throw Lester-Arrieta-Hendricks-Hammel in the NLCS. Hammel gave the Cubs a career year and Hendricks might have too. Arrieta had a second half for the record books, but for as great as he was, he had a BABIP and HR/FB rate where are unsustainable, however, Arrieta induced an insane number of ground balls in the second half of the season. Lester’s numbers don’t look nearly as good as Arrieta, but he was very good this year. This is a very good staff.

2015 Pitching Z-Scores: Cubs and Mets

But it might not be as good as the Mets. New York will throw Harvey-Syndergaard-deGrom-Matz and oh hey they all strike out more than 8.5 batters per 9. The Mets staff this year was very good leading the league in walks per 9 (ie the lowest rate). And sure, part of the reason they didn’t walk anyone was because of Colon, but Harvey, Syndergaard, and deGrom all had fewer than 2 walks per 9. These guys put the ball in the strike zone and most hitters can’t do much with it. And like the Cubs, they sported excellent ERAs and FIPs.


The Cubs bullpen has been pointed to as the weak point of the roster, but it’s actually been pretty good since Travis Wood was moved to the pen. Strop has had his struggles, but he’s been good (though helped by a crazy low BABIP) and Rondon has shut the door. One thing to note: the Cubs relievers seem to throw a slider or cutter that they bury into the dirt at about 60 feet. The Cardinals and Pirates could not lay off this pitch. Whatever it is, it’s a good pitch. But if I’m noticing it, so are other advances scouts. Watch to see if the Mets can lay off it.

The Mets bullpen hasn’t been as good. In fact, it’s pretty average. Colon is now in the pen which should help, but the Mets are going to go as far as their starters take them. The moment the bullpen enters the game, the Cubs bats could easily awake.

What Does It Mean?

Before I started writing this, I thought this was going to be Cubs in six. But the now? I’m not so sure. Russell's injury is big.

And... the Mets are a bad match up for the Cubs. New York's starters strike guys out and don’t walk anyone. The Cubs offense is susceptible to swinging and missing while relies on the walk to get on base. While the Cubs offense is more dynamic than it was back in June, the Cubs features five batters that strike out more than 25% of the time (if Soler plays). Sure if they get a hold of one… but this isn’t the Cardinals and their non-strike out producing staff. The Mets rotation might average 11 or 12 Ks a game.

The flip side of course, how are the Mets going to score runs? But here is where having Conforto and Cespedes may make the difference—the Mets lineup is suddenly deep with those two in there. The Mets have, with Duda, six guys with wRC+ above 130, the Cubs only three. Add Russell’s injury and the defensive downgrading the Cubs have in the outfield with Schwarber out there… and things aren’t looking nearly as bright for the Cubs.

Both teams turned themselves into really good teams in the second half. The Mets turned a so-so offense into a good offense. The Cubs meanwhile, grew into themselves a bit. But they also clearly played above their talent level over the last sixty or so games. At some point, teams that play .715 baseball come back down to Earth… I think it’s in the NLCS.

Prediction: Mets in six.

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